What’s in a Name?
If you are new to bamboo and confused by the names you read and hear, this article will help you to understand some basic naming conventions, and how they apply to bamboo. To effectively communicate with others about the identity of a type of bamboo, you use common names and botanical names. Common name Common names are simply plant names that become popular for referring to a particular type of plant, i.e. Golden Bamboo or Black Bamboo. A particular plant is very likely to have different common names in different regions, and in different languages. Also, different plants will frequently have the same common name. For example, there are at least two different types of bamboo that are both referred to as "Black Bamboo". Common names are not regulated by any sort of code, nor does the scientific community have any rules regarding their formulation. Because of the reasons above, common names are of limited use in the accurate identification of plants. They do, however, make great nick names when identity is not in question. Botanical Names Naming conventions for botanical names are established in a code called The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Taxonomists use these rules to identify, classify and name different plants and plant groups. The essence of botanical nomenclature is to identify a plant type with one name that is accepted internationally. Once you understand how the terms "genus", "species" and "cultivar" work together, in the majority of instances, you can accurately convey the identity of the bamboo you are talking about to another person, and vice-versa. Granted this system has its own set of problems that lead to inconsistency, errors and exceptions. Still, it is a system that enables widespread agreement on the identification of a great number of plants, bamboo included. Genus and Species A genus is a taxon (group) of very closely related plants. You can think of a species as a smaller, more closely related group contained within a genus. For us average gardeners, the species name is the basic unit we use most to identify a type of bamboo. The species name consists of two words. The first word in the species name is the genus, and the second word is called the "specific epithet". Taken together, the genus and specific epithet are the species name. For example, Fargesia robusta is the species name for a bamboo type in the genus Fargesia that is distinguished with the epithet robusta. By the way, "species" can be either singular or plural. Cultivar Species often contain subgroups that differ from the type in minor but distinct ways. Concerning bamboo, the subgroup you will most likely encounter is a "cultivar". A bamboo cultivar is distinguished from its species by a mutation of culm color, leaf variegation, or leaf size/plant size. Mutated plants are selected and propagated by growers for ornamental characteristics that make them desirable as landscape plants. A cultivar name is added to the species name to give it a separate identity. Naming conventions for cultivated plants are published in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Just know that the cultivar name follows the species name, and is capitalized in single quotes; the species name is italicized, but the cultivar name is not. For example, Phyllostachys vivax 'Aureocaulis' is the correct reference to a cultivar of the species Phyllostachys vivax. Science Meets Business Patented and trademarked plants are appearing at nurseries more and more, and they raise nomenclatural confusion to new heights. For those of us that get confused easily, the good news is that there aren't any patented bamboos yet to talk about (that I know of). Yippee! So far, only a few trademarked bamboo names have surfaced. Just know that the trademark name is not the cultivar name. For example, I have grown many wonderful plants produced under the name Fargesia scabrida Asian Wonder ™, which are actually the equivalent of Fargesia scabrida. In this case, the trademark name Asian Wonder ™ is a really cool name, but it doesn't do anything to clarify the identity of the bamboo. The best resource you have for the current and most widely accepted bamboo names is the bamboo species list at bambooweb.info.